Let’s set the scene. It’s September. Some Californians wake up, gazing out of their windows to see hazy skies the color of orange peels. They all take note: wildfire season–– wildfires have become so commonplace over the past few years that the term ‘wildfire season has become a part of the average Californian’s lexicon–– has begun.
Wildfires are a unique consequence and manifestation of the climate crisis in that they are right in front of our eyes. We so often hear about climate change in terms of things like carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions. While these are significant contributors to our warming Earth, they are invisible to the untrained eye, which makes it easier for us to wrongly think about climate change as an abstract concept rather than a real and tangible threat. As they continue to rampage through acres and devastate people’s lives, wildfires act as a visual reminder that climate change is an immediate and undeniable crisis. They are, in short, a call to action.
Every fire goes through three stages: incipient, growth, and fully developed. On a graph, a fire gets worse and worse through the stages, going from a small chemical reaction to a destructive force that tears through buildings and lives. We can think about the history of wildfires–– and their relationship to climate change–– in these stages.
First, incipient: the initial sparks of a chemical reaction occur between heat, oxygen, and a source of heat. A larger fire is imminent, but the feeling of a real threat is far and distant. This is how people felt about wildfires at large when they first started happening. When they did occur, they were immense and destructive, but nonetheless, they were few and far between. This was the case in, for example, California, which has a long history of massive wildfires dating back to the 1800s. One of the largest and most severe wildfires in the state’s records was the 1889 Santiago Canyon Fire, which is said to have burned more than 300,000 acres of land across the southern parts of California. But the next fire on the same scale happened more than 100 years later, when flames blazed through 220,000 acres of Ventura county. Gaps of multiple years between wildfires gave people the ability to ignore their real danger.
This is no longer the case today, which brings us to the second stage, growth: a fire spreads at an alarming rate, with its flames grasping at any fuel it can find. With wildfires affecting more places across the globe than ever before, it is safe to say that ‘growth’ is the stage we’re in today. Acres have been blazed by wildfires in places far beyond California. It was just reported that every continent except Antarctica has been impacted by wildfires. Australia experienced one of the “worst wildlife disasters” in human history just two years ago. The Brazilian Amazon has now reached a tipping point where it can officially be classified as a savannah, not a rainforest, due to excessive heat and wildfires that have occurred within the last decade. This summer, 19 countries across Europe were declared to be in “extreme danger,” with more than 2,500 wildfires recorded in this region since May. The United Kingdom just experienced the hottest day in its recorded history, with some parts surpassing 40 degrees Celsius, which ignited house-blazing fires in areas of east London. What’s more: it has been predicted that wildfires will continue to grow more severe and reach even more regions as the climate continues to warm over the next few decades. For the Western United States alone, projections say that an annual average increase of one degree Celsius in temperature would result in the median burned area per year increasing by as much as 600 percent.
The third and final stage, fully developed, is when a fire reaches its worst point–– with structures fully disintegrated and the air polluted, the fire’s impact is fully realised. While wildfires–– with their raging across continents–– remain at the growth stage, fully developed is where we have entered with climate change. This is precisely because climate change is an accumulation of factors that has finally reached an alarming threshold. The science tells us that as long as the climate continues to warm, wildfires, which are one factor of climate change, will keep waging. Rising temperatures are perhaps the most widely known–– and widely experienced–– sign of climate change; when temperatures increase, soil is more susceptible to drying, as heat sucks the moisture out of it. If the soil gets too dry, a drought occurs, in which entire areas experience prolonged periods of water shortages. Dry vegetation is fuel for a fire to spread further and last longer. At this stage, wildfires also reach their most potent peak for the harm that they have on the environment. It was found that wildfires significantly affect the global carbon cycle precisely because they release such large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, ultimately intensifying global warming. In addition to this added harm on the environment, public health comes under threat when the height of a wildfire is reached, as people are forced to live under air quality conditions known to cause respiratory harm.
Here we venture to go back to the very beginning and insert a new stage that comes far before incipient: prevention, meaning stopping wildfires before they happen. Our Earth has suffered the cycle of incipient, growth, and fully developed, and there is no denying that wildfires, being both a cause and effect of climate change, have imprinted long-lasting impacts which will be felt for years to come. However, not all hope is lost. Efforts of rehabilitation and reversal, such as carbon capture and sequestration, are being made to combat global warming at large. We can take the same approach to fix the wildfire problem.
Currently, resources of countries across the globe are allocated towards the reaction to wildfires. In one year alone, the United States is estimated to have spent between 71.1 and 347.8 billion dollars on post-wildfire efforts; in 2017, more than 50 percent of the United States Forest Service’s budget was spent on fire suppression. Currently, only 0.2 percent of the total budget for wildfires in the United States is devoted to planning. According to a report out of the UN Environment Programme, we do have the power to fight back against wildfires and against climate change, if we prioritise preventative measures. In other words, if we stop wildfires before they even enter the incipient stage. It is possible to live in a world where these effects need not to be ever felt. Some places, such as Finland, whose landmass is 73 percent covered by trees, have been successful in stopping the spread of wildfires and protecting their forests by investing more in forest management and conducive infrastructure.
Rebalancing investments so that equal attention and effort is given to 1) planning, 2) prevention, and 3) preparedness is critical. Investing in being proactive against wildfires means investing in fighting against climate change. It means investing in our future.